Posted in Travel

History of a Helm-Hog

jib sail
© Kana Tyler 2008

I got hooked on sailboats at a fairly young age, with some “teasers” of experiences growing up. I was nine when we visited family friends in the Netherlands, and their teenage son took us in the family’s little wooden sailboat, poling from their back-yard canal to the nearby lake where he raised the sails… (My little sister and I followed up that experience by holding a coronation ceremony for the “Queen of Idaho” in their living room, with their hand-tatted lace doilies on our heads.)

sailing rigs, tall ships sailing, sailboat cruises caribbean
© Kana Tyler 2008

I was thirteen or so when we took a sunset-cruise on a historic three masted sailing ship along the coast of Maine… I spent the evening sitting on the taffrail and leaning on the rigging, and I didn’t want to get off that ship, ever. A few years later I applied for a Girl Scout “Greater Opportunity” experience crewing another tall ship–I’d sold enough cookies to fund the trip, but only made the “alternates” list among the nationwide applicants. Our youth minister in high school was a captain who took us out on the motor yacht he was “boat-sitting” and filled my head with sailing stories.

The summer I graduated from high school, my sister and I finally got to crew a bareboat sailing charter (“bareboat” meaning you rent the boat and crew it yourself) with our uncle, who took us for a week-long sailing cruise on Lake Michigan. The Uncle takes his sailing seriously, and no one crews for him without studying up beforehand and being ready to work. Precisely what I wanted to learn, and to do. I came back from that week with a journal full of sailboat sketches, and a head full of sailing dreams.

cruising sailboats, sailing Caribbean islands
© Kana Tyler 2008

In the decade following, I went off in pursuit of other ocean-related ambitions, earning advanced certifications in Scuba diving and studying marine biology at University of Hawai’i–but I didn’t have many sailing opportunities, aside from taking the University’s little sailboat out for the occasional day-sail with my research buddies.

Then, the winter before my son was born, the Uncle invited my sister and me (and my first husband, if he’d agree to learn as well—no ride-along slackers allowed) for a Christmas charter in the Florida Keys.  Somewhere I have some video footage of myself on the beach in my maternity tent swimsuit, with a voice-over commentary about beached whales by my amused sister–but despite my seven-month stomach, it was a blissful week.

sailboat cruises Caribbean, ship masts
© Kana Tyler 2008

Snorkeling off the back of the boat (I couldn’t dive due to my pregnancy), feeding lettuce-leaves to manatees, raising a drawbridge on the radio so we could sail beneath, rocking to sleep on the waves of an anchorage, enjoying excursions to shore (most notably to visit Hemingway’s favorite bar in Key West, which is now bedecked with bras hanging from the rafters)… But more than anything, the sailing itself.

I feel alive and invigorated when I’m at the helm, responding intuitively to the wind, adjusting the trim of sails to put the wind to work for me, the finesse of gliding up to a dock with precision, the appeal of nautical charts and sail canvas and lines and rigging. I love everything about a sailboat.

sailing in Caribbean, sailboat cruises Caribbean
© Kana Tyler 2008

Three years later, the Uncle invited us for another Christmas of Caribbean sailing–this time from the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Childless himself (not to mention fastidiously O.C.D.), the Uncle had reservations about including two-year-old Christian, but he was generous enough to give it a go. But then, even at two Christian had the vocabulary and seriousness of a college professor, and was immediately as enchanted by sailing as his mom. (And even the fussy Uncle ended up pretty enchanted with Christian’s mannerly behavior).

I was once again pregnant–no Scuba and no rum for me!–but thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to apprentice my little Padawan sailor. Interestingly enough, Christian (now age 11) has some sailing-memories which could only be from this trip, and which he didn’t pick up as “second-hand memories” from photos or parental story-telling…

sailing boats, boat sails
© Kana Tyler 2008

I’d been aching for ages to get my own Skipper’s papers, so the first husband and I saved up for sailing school, and spent a week on a live-aboard in the San Juan islands north of Seattle. Our instructor Gary (a gruff retired Army colonel with an impish sense of humor beneath the stern exterior) told me privately that he would have hesitated to certify my husband, except he figured we’d always sail together anyway–and my skills would make up for his lack. He didn’t want to cause a rift by hurting the husband’s pride, so we both walked away with certification….

bluewater sailing school, sailing boats
barefoot at the helm… (with a piece of rope holding up my pants!)

The Uncle’s next invitation for another Christmas of Caribbean sailing included the offer to list us as the Skippers for the bareboat sailing charter, in order to build our “sailing resume.” This time we chartered a bigger boat–our crew was growing to include my sister’s new husband and our two children.We sailed from the British Virgin Islands, with some time in Puerto Rican waters as well. We went ashore to explore some local markets (and an open-air bar with rum drinks–I wasn’t pregnant this time!) and took a local bus around the island to a postcard-perfect half-moon bay lined with a pristine white sand beach… I dusted off my rusty Spanish to order food from a beach vendor, and introduced Christian to snorkeling.

Anchored off Culebra, we met a family sailing around the world with their two young daughters–the same ages as our two–and they invited us aboard for a “play date,” since the girls didn’t have many opportunities to play with other children. The grownups sat on the deck drinking beer while the kids played dress-up below decks with the girls’ extensive wardrobe of costumes. Christian’s favorite memory of this trip is our anchorage in a bioluminescent bay, where the toilet water (pumped-in from the sea) even made the “head” glow blue.

sailing anchorage, sailing schools, sailboat cruises
© Kana Tyler 2008

Possibly my favorite-ever week sailing was our first solo charter. We invited my mom, and I absolutely loved sharing the adventure with her, as well as with the kids (then aged seven & three). My mom is the most adventurous soul I know–she’s game for anything!–which makes her the perfect person with whom to share an adventure. I’ll take credit for convincing her to learn to Scuba dive, but I can’t take any credit for how thoroughly she’s run with that–she takes dive trips every year to exotic locations, where she meets new people (and sometimes meets up with adventure-met friends in new locations the following year).

sailing instructor, sailing schools
Colonel Gary, my sailing instructor

At the time when we took this trip with her, our marriage was on the rocks, though no one besides the two of us knew it–and even we didn’t yet know that I’d be leaving six months later. But aside from the husband’s moody tempers, it was quite possibly the perfect week. Gorgeous weather, wonderful adventure-buddies in my mom & the kiddos… and lots of time at the helm. Seeing how happy I am at the wheel, my mom gave me a canvas tote that Christmas, embroidered with the words “Helm Hog.”

We hiked on the islands, soaked up sun from the deck, sailed among pods of breaching Orcas, and admired Pacific sunsets while sipping wine in the cockpit.

sailing kids
my sketch of the kids on our 2007 cruise

Christian learned some basics of charts and navigation, and squirrely Elena Grace practiced sailing-safety-rules. And I took an accidental swim, fully dressed, when I leaned too far to swab the stern of our tracked-in mud after an island hike. (The only thing Elena Grace would tell anyone about that week, in her piping little voice, was that “Mommy fell off the boat!“)

After I left my husband, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to sail solo. I might have had the better skill-set, but I hadn’t sailed without the husband as back-up. I had the feeling that if I didn’t get back on a boat right away, I might let sailing slip away entirely–so I signed up for an advanced course and navigation certification, requesting a class from our original instructor Gary.

It was a magical week… and although I approached it with a great deal of trepidation–my first solo vacation, ever!–I was reassured to realize that I was in my element as soon as I took the helm again. I had bought myself a digital camera (the photos here are all from that week), and the experience inspired me to believe, deep-down, that I was going to be okay. Not just sailing, but navigating Life solo.

anchor tattoo
my anchor

My sobriety coin, which I now have tattooed on my back, bears this bit of wisdom: “I can’t control the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails.” It’s a nod to the topic I addressed yesterday, the need to let go and let God.  Phrased in words that this sailor understands.

And I’ve been additionally blessed by the unexpected gift of a co-navigator in Life.  I had forcefully insisted that I would never re-marry, but I recognize now what a jinx that word–“never”–carries with it. And I’m glad to be proved wrong.

I think, though, that I needed to arrive at being “okay” solo before I was truly ready for him.

My tattoo of Keoni’s name is a sailboat anchor and wheel–because he is my anchor, and my co-navigator. The kanji beside the anchor translate to “Our New Life.” A new life in which we fully intend to get back aboard some sailboats.

Here’s wishing you fair winds and a following sea!

© Kana Tyler 2011


I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a few kinds-of-crazy, a joyful wife, a mom... a list-maker! :)

31 thoughts on “History of a Helm-Hog

  1. Oh, how well I remember that magical week in the San Juans…where I came aboard as “ballast and child-minder.” Orca-spotting with squealing grand kids, wine-sipping in the evenings with the grownups, postcard-perfect weather and scenery — it was the Perfect Vacation. I think there are still fingernail grooves in the deck from when you dragged me off the boat at week’s end. Thanks for letting me re-live it all!


    1. Let’s do it again, shall we? Minus the wine-sipping, for me–but with a helluva cook in the galley this time! ;)


  2. I have been enjoying your writing since somehow discovering you on the web. This piece brings back many memories for me as one who has sailed off and on all her adult life as wife, mother and now solo. Thanks for painting such lovely word pictures.


  3. You are such a good storyteller (from me that is the highest of compliments). The ease with which you carry the reader along flows naturally and yet the passion of the subject is so obvious. Nothing feels forced. Hope you have many opportunities to ride that sailing high. =)


    1. Christian is very adamant that he intends to buy us a sailboat “when he’s a grownup.” And Elena Grace has already named it: Kissing Booth. So maybe I WILL get to captain a vessel of my own… ;) In the meantime, I’m happy to charter, so long as the kid-crew will come along!


  4. Hi,
    What a beautiful experience and it was great that you went and learned yourself as well. I have never been sailing maybe one day I may get to experience the majesty of it all.
    Your sketches are fantastic, I really like the one you did of your children very nice indeed.


  5. Gorgeous sketches. Great photos. Beautiful post. You are such a multi-talented artist! Do you sketch your own and/or Keoni’s tattoos?


    1. Some of them, yes (including the anchor, in fact)… although our tattoo artist is FAR more talented than I, so we usually give him our ideas and let HIM run with them. :) The plumerias behind the anchor are entirely his work, and I bow to his superior skills ;)


    1. My mom wasn’t sure about that either–she’s terribly prone to seasickness, which made her decision to join us rather a brave one. ;) She came armed with dramamine and wrist-bands, but our gorgeous week of weather actually didn’t give her any trouble. Ya never know! ;)


  6. It must have been fun to ride the waves with during that first solo charter. And it was fun reading about your experiences. Felt the magic of sailboats.


  7. Dang Sista’, what a tale! I have never set foot on a sailboat, but have wanted to for many years. I think it started after reading Sailing Alone Around the World by Captain Joshua Slocum. I especially appreciate how easily you paint the word pictures and bits of wisdom onto your canvas. Thanks to you and Keoni for sharing your story!


    1. I was just looking at that book–I take it that it’s a worthwhile read? :)
      We’re SO happy to take you along for the ride–and I have to point out (in light of your own Kooky post) that although he began as “Keoni da Cook,” he now signs himself off as “Keoni da Kook” … To the rest of you, here’s a worthwhile read: Will the Real Kooks Please Stand Up?
      Hugs! Kana & da Kook


  8. The nearest I’ve been was gulet sailing off Turkey, with a crew, and that was wonderful. I’d love to try some more.

    Sorry Kana! The top of my screen shows me as following you but I don’t seem to receive your blogs in my Reader. Now following on Twitter so hopefully i can stay in touch.


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